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Pro-Democracy Group Comes of Age : Activism: The Alliance for Democracy in Vietnam helped secure the release of the political prisoners.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The six Vietnamese men who gathered at a private home in 1982 had but one goal: to form a network of nationalists who would labor to wrest away by whatever means their fallen country from the power of the Communists.

By the time the meeting ended, the men--former educators, statesmen and military officers--had organized the Alliance for Democracy in Vietnam. Today, the creed of the alliance, “to fight for the freedom of the Vietnamese people and to free them from the evils of Communism,” remains the same. The methods, however, have changed with the times.

Instead of advocating “liberation” through protests and threats of violence, the alliance leaders are seeking changes by lobbying the U.S. Congress, thereby, they said, pressuring the Vietnamese government into concessions such as the humane treatment and release of political prisoners in the country.

The alliance’s efforts paid off Nov. 2 when the Vietnamese government released from prison two Vietnamese Americans who had been imprisoned since 1993 for planning an alliance-sponsored pro-democracy conference in Ho Chi Minh City. The men, Liem Quang Tran of Santa Ana and Tri Tan Nguyen of Houston, arrived at Los Angeles International Airport on Tuesday.

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“We have learned from past lessons that strident protests just aren’t effective,” said Nhut Tran, chairman of the Orange County chapter of the Alliance for Democracy in Vietnam and one of its original founders. The two Trans are not related.

“So we wrote letters, we made phone calls, we talked to other activist organizations and asked for their help, and we lobbied our local congressmen as well,” Nhut Tran said. “I think all this helped in the release of our compatriots.”

After more than a decade of organizing within the worldwide Vietnamese communities, the alliance has finally come of age politically, said some in the Vietnamese American community.

“We have many political groups in Orange County, some more in name than in substance,” said a community activist who requested anonymity. “The alliance is one of the few legitimate ones in that it is an international group that has been around for a long time and has been quietly active in the community.”

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The six-person membership in 1982 has grown to more than 1,000, all specially selected for their involvement in the pro-South Vietnam nationalist movement before the country fell in 1975.

Liem Tran is one such participant. He has been an alliance member for more than a decade, volunteering to help plan the symposium that resulted in his imprisonment.

In an interview Wednesday at his home, Tran declined to discuss in detail his involvement with the group, saying only: “Each person has a belief; that was the belief I chose.”

He did, however, attribute his release, in part, to the activism of the alliance.

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Indeed, after Tran’s arrest in November, 1993, Nhut Tran galvanized the alliance nationally, encouraging other chapters to appeal to their Congress members for the release of Liem Tran and Nguyen. The Orange County chapter also paid for Liem Tran’s older sister, Nguyet, to go to Washington in October, where she appealed personally before a House committee for her brother’s release.

In the past, the alliance has organized demonstrations to protest economic and diplomatic relations between the United States and Vietnam. Recently, however, group members have recognized that they can be more effective if they work through their congressional representatives, Nhut Tran said.

“This was further proven by the release of our brothers, Liem and Tri,” he said. “It also has given us more encouragement. We know our work must continue. We must work with each other to exert more political and economic pressure so that [Vietnam] will grant its people human rights.”

Times staff writer Tina Nguyen contributed to this report.

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